Elucidations: Next

We want a theory of desire that can answer questions like: given a scenario and a desire, was that desire satisfied?

Notably, we are not asking whether a person with that desire was happy or not afterwards.

Conventional wisdom

Conventionally, desire corresponds to a desired state of the world, and satisfaction is whether or not that state is obtained.

A challenging scenario for this view: a man is rushing to catch a important train to NYC and boards at the last second, only to realize afterward that the train is heading to the wrong destination. Was his desire satisfied?

  • No - eliminitivist
    • We reject that the than man desired to get on the train to a wrong destination, because his ‘true’ desire involved to see the doctor in NYC, which is inconsistent with being on the wrong train.
    • Problem:
      • The doctor was going to tell him if his disease was curable, so what his ‘true’ desire is the cure, not the train to NYC. 1
      • I.e. the naive eliminitivist accidentally eliminates all desires other than the desire for ‘the good’.
  • Yes - separatist
    • Introduce another desire to make sense of why the man is upset despite the desire being satisfied. The ‘catch-this-train’ desire was satisfied, but ‘get to NYC’ that was not satisfied.
    • Problems
      • This account makes the desires seem separate/atomic, but why do they seem so intimately connected to each other?
      • If he learned just before that it was going to the wrong destination, his desire to catch the (that) train would instantly vanish.
      • Also this makes desires in principle unconnected from what is good for us.

Challenging the conventional wisdom: Desire = Object + Aim

When you want anything, you want more than one thing, so it’s complicated to answer “did you get what you want”.

  • The man wanted to catch the train and wanted to get to NYC; those are both aspects of his single desire.

There is a specific side and a general side to a desire - Object of desire: (“catching this train”) - Aim: what makes the object appealing.

Relation between desire and belief

Conventional wisdom holds they are both representable merely as states of the world, although they have an complementary relationship:

  • We want to update our belief state to match the world,
  • we want to update the world to match our belief state.

This picture is incomplete. Example: feel hungry, desire food.

  • It can’t be an accident that a bunch of seemingly related desires pop up (want a sandwich downstairs, want pasta from next door, …)
  • It doesn’t make sense that we desire things in a way that is not possible (want sandwich from Paris, from the moon)
  • Things make more sense when we break down the structure of a desire:
    • Object: sandwich from deli downstairs, sandwich
    • Aim: satisfy the hunger

Summary slogan: “Satisfaction as a compromise”

These thoughts might inspire positive change in fields like economics, where people’s desires are taken to be “given in advance”. Their framework involves setting up a system that optimizes utility, given desires (as the fixed input data), but rather the desires are adaptive to the world / how things are achieved.

Parents try don’t satisfy children’s desires because they don’t have the right desires. The desires are formed on the reflection of prior experience (knowing what to want, how to achieve it).

The story of the formation of the desire is required towards understanding what it means to satisfy it.


  1. This can be done ad infinitum: his true desire is not the cure but rather good health, or happiness, and so on, until you reach a terminal desire (“the Good”).